What kinds of challenges do people learning French generally encounter? In what sense can it be said that French is not that difficult after all?
Why are French courses in France the best way to learn the language?
Many students say that the existence of “false friends” is one of the things that makes French difficult. For a French speaker, “confetti” means small bits of paper that are thrown into the air at a carnival, while for an Italian speaker, the same word refers to the sweets given out at weddings.
Across the Channel, an “affair” is a romantic relationship, while in France, “affaires” refers to business. Similarly, the English word “habit”, unlike its French homonym, usually has nothing to do with clothing, unless you’re referring specifically to religious dress!
Noun genders are another issue that tends to raise questions among learners. For example, as you know, words that end in -age are masculine (un garage [garage], un langage [language], un fromage [cheese], and so on), but there are so many exceptions (une image [picture], une page [page], une nage [swimming], etc.), that you can quickly get confused.
And in addition to the distinction between tu and vous, which is an extra challenge for English speakers, the numbers above sixty seem perfectly designed to make life impossible for beginners! Rather than using “soixante-dix” and “quatre-vingt-dix”, wouldn’t it be easier to say “septante” and “nonante” for seventy and ninety, as they do in Belgium and French-speaking Switzerland?
The pronunciation of French words is often seen as one of the factors that make the language more difficult to learn. Some sounds, such as nasal vowels, are rarely encountered in other languages. As for words of English origin (for example “square”, “clown” or “cowboy”), the French versions are quite different from the original pronunciation!
To make things more complicated, not every letter is pronounced in the language of Molière. We don’t say the “p” in the verb “compter” [to count], for example, or the “m” in “automne” [autumn]. Not to mention digraphs such as “gn”, “ym” or “oi”, as found in “oignon” [onion], “thym” [thyme] and “oiseau” [bird].
French pronunciation is not as difficult as that of tonal languages like Mandarin. And Xhosa, an official language of South Africa, uses clicks produced by the tongue and teeth!
In French, there are clear rules surrounding the pronunciation of the word “plus” [more] and for liaisons.
But learning a language doesn’t mean you have to achieve perfect mastery of all of its subtleties. The aim has to be to communicate with other people. The key thing is to be able to understand someone, carry out specific tasks and build your skills, even if that means hesitating a bit or making a few mistakes. And don’t be self-conscious about your accent either! As long as native speakers can understand you, your accent will not be seen as an impediment.
In short: take risks, be bold and pluck up the nerve to speak in public.
False friends are not a twist of fate, but proof that the languages are close: IndoEuropean languages and Romance languages such as Portuguese, French and Italian share genuine similarities. When asking whether it is more difficult to learn English than French, it’s important to remember that both languages use the same alphabet.
The only difference is the existence of accents (acute, grave and circumflex) and the use of the cedilla and diaeresis. The world-renowned Foreign Service Institute (FSI) also says that French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian are among the foreign languages which are “closely related” to English.
Have you noticed that the two languages share words in lots of areas, like food and fashion? Souffle, purée, omelette, sommelier, baguette and crème brûlée, along with beret, corset and chic are all well-known borrowings from French.
But how long does it take to learn French?
The FSI estimates that it will take an English speaker studying for 25 hours per week between 600 and 750 hours to reach level B2/C1.
Courses in France are a perfect opportunity to practise French every day with a nativespeaking teacher as well as local residents and other students. Your motivation will soar as you learn the things you need to know to get by in everyday life. Immersed in French culture, you will be able to enjoy your studies and forget about any difficulties.
Nonetheless, it’s important not to be too ambitious. It’ll take patience to learn to speak like a native. Set yourself a weekly objective and devote some time to speaking, homework and the vocabulary studied in class.